*** Prologue ***
I had my doubts. Thirty-five teenagers in a mixed group of levels from low B1 to near-native language ability jam-packed in a stuffy room, listening to me reading a Russian folk tale about the frog which was, in fact, a princess – I just was not so sure. Many things could go wrong. The text is long, the room is small, the kids are probably expecting games as the tests are over and holidays are near. I don’t know how big the interest of teenagers for a tale about a frog could be (I mean, I might not be too excited about it myself if I were them…). The text, even after my amateur adaptation, still has words like “a spindle”. It’s after lunch. I’m not at all good at storytelling or even story-reading. I don’t believe my reading could engage 35 young active minds and make them follow a long story and keep quiet.
So, entering this class, as any other for that matter, I was filled with concerns and assumptions. Yet, I wanted badly to try have this class my way and see what happens.
*** Class ***
Here’s a dry step-by-step run-down of this 45-minute class proceedings:
1. Instructing the students to organize themselves into pairs of mixed levels (Level 5 and Level 4 students within our course system). This took about 10 minutes and did not result in exactly all pairs consisting of students of both levels. All of them sit facing the whiteboard (and me).
2. Distributing the text. Below you can see the PDF version, but note that the kids only had 5 pages out of ten. As it goes, the office printer had got out of order and I could not print out those extra illustrations to the story. Please also note that I had adapted the text from this webpage, keeping the images and adding a super simple half-picture half-text glossary for the weirdest sounding words in the tale. I’d also divided the text into 4 parts.
3. Explaining to the students what is going to happen. Only half of the group sitting in the classroom are familiar with the practice of reading in class in this way, with an ideal objective of enjoying the text (aka extensive reading class). So I explain and write on the board the following, aiming at bringing some clarity:
– Part 1. Anna reads –> students talk
– Part 2. Anna reads –> students talk
… repeat till the end of story.
I split the text into four more or less logical sections for the reason of giving students a break while processing the long narration, too long (I feared) for many to handle. So my plan was to read the part and then give students 3-5 minutes to discuss it in their groups, in Japanese. Clarifying meanings, discussing, rereading parts, etc. There is no real task as such for this time, it is more like space to take a breather and probably “connect” with the tale.
4. It took around 30 minutes to do as I’d planned, reading and providing the talking time. In that talking time I also gave some extra cultural notes (Ivan’s clothing-related; my random thought that Yelena the Fair in the image on the second page looks much like an image of a woman saint in the Orthodox icons; the explanation of the Little Hut in the Russian woods that always greets the main character with its back).
5. The students are given a piece of paper each to write their impressions of the tale.
*** Students’ impressions of the tale ***
“I want to read many tales like this!!”
“I know that it is just a story and it can’t be reasonable and realistic sometimes, but it feels funny that Yelena changed her mind so easily, though she was going to marry another, to go back home with Prince Ivan.”
“I was surprised with the end of the story. The frog is so amazing!”
“I thought Prince Ivan is so poor. However, it wasn’t like that. Finally, they obtained happiness. I like this story.”
“Prince Ivan looked for his wife but she almost married another. I think it is very bad.”
“The story told me not to lose chances to marry a girl.”
“I can’t imagine life with the princess frog… This horrible story gave me shivers. I know the princess frog is a perfect girl (?) because she can do needle work, dance and cook, but she is a frog!!! OMG!!!”
“There were many scenes that made me confused. Such as the part when the prince’s wife was decided with a bow…. I wonder why it took over one year for Prince Ivan to go look for his wife, because if I were him I would go straight away to find her.”
“I think they are emotional people and Prince Ivan often cried. That’s too much for me. He is a man, he shouldn’t cry too much.”
“I think Prince Ivan was impudent, because soon after going into the house, he asked them to serve him food and drink, put him to bed. I couldn’t empathize with him.”
“I think the story is very interesting. The people in the story and their acting is so unique, as in many tales. I’m glad the prince and the frog became happy finally.”
*** Teacher’s impressions ***
1) I realize I probably never thought that the frog is amazing. In fact, I might have not given the frog a single thought in 20 years.
2) There’s no point (or sense) in asking a group of 35 Japanese teenagers “What do you think is gonna happen next in this story?”
3) While making a choice to read this particular tale I did not consider the message, values and the moral of the story. In fact, I did not think of it at all, maybe because the story and its plot are already too deeply ingrained in my consciousness through my cultural background. And so I was taken aback (in the best of senses) by the students’ reactions, their raw emotions, true and unaffected by comprehension questions and vocabulary gap fills. A single read was enough to spur a wide range of feelings, wonders and judgements… Yes, very humanly so, judgements of the characters and their actions. I had to do exactly ZERO lead-ins and ask exactly ZERO questions to bring up the topics of moral values, quirks of behaviour, relationship struggles and challenges, life choices. Just one read of this tale, that to me to tell the truth is already rather “flat”, was deeply emotionally affective for them. Which coursebook text could provoke any more sincere reactions from students?? It is a rhetorical question.
4) Can we just imagine a school in which we teach by reading?… just for a brief illusory moment.
5) Teens believe in the permanence of love. Why did they expect Yelena to wait for Ivan? We don’t get to learn much about that other man, but if she chose (?) him, he might, for all we know, be a good fella)))
6) The frog tale to my surprise left no one untouched and unconcerned.
7) I did not ask if they liked the story.
8) A student did use the word empathize all on his own, with no prompts OR dictionaries involved.
9) Bookclub. After winter break I am organizing a bookclub in our school!
*** Epilogue ***
This class made me feel so passionate that I couldn’t help but sit down and blog for the first time in four months. The students’ sincerity and genuine emotions was a spark that inspired and energized me. They are fantastic. And I, well, I just love my job.
When we finished I asked them to read something during their winter break.
Read. Just read.